Like many people, I started to notice the birds during the first lockdown. In those strange times when, between eipsodes of Tiger King, we walked down the middle of main roads laughing for the lack of cars, they became difficult to miss. Crows and magpies picked at the edges of boarded up bins, and in every hedge, the frenetic, insistent and unending chatter of house sparrows. Hundreds of them, chirruping, chirruping, enough to drive you to distraction. How had their presence passed me by on those routine workaday walks to the train station for another day at the desk? It seems strange but, thinking back, I can’t recall ever having heard them. I suppose that is the way with our semiautomated yet artificially hectic and pressured way of life - the to-do list, commute, and pinging of emails switches off our consciousness from what is immediately around us. The pause in the onward grind of the market economy in 2020 enabled us, once again, to notice. In the quiet loneliness of those times, I dug out an old tin of cheap watercolours and started to paint.
Great tit: The first bird I painted in 2023, on New Year's Day
A couple of years down the line, and the birds are facing their own public health disaster in the shape of bird flu. 97 million birds have been killed worldwide by the current outbreak, and it’s likely to continue beyond the winter. But there’s no social distancing and vaccination for them, just herd immunity and hoping for the best. It’s the latest in a series of threats, mainly man-made, from which many populations may not recover – habitat destruction, DDT, over-fishing, mass urban sprawl, war, and of course climate change. One thing that has struck me since I started noticing the birds is how much their world mirrors ours in terms of its increasing homogenisation. People will often tell me, with a mix of delight and sadness, how they used to see a variety of birds visiting their own gardens – chiffchaffs, tits of every variety, greenfinches, nuthatches and even woodpeckers. They have been replaced by the usual crows, magpies, and pigeons. A quarter of British bird species are on the red Birds of Concern Conservation list, which means they are at serious threat of extinction. Those species that have adapted to the urban life, however, have thrived. Magpie numbers, for example, have increased nearly four-fold over the last 40 years. Doesn’t this sound like the increasingly narrow character types who are able to thrive in the world that the Silicon Valley tech bros have brought into being? Extroverted, career-driven, competitive, devotees of hustle culture, usually drawn from the ranks of the middle and upper classes. Grayson Perry once coined a neat term for these guys – “Default Man” – and I highly recommend his essay on the topic. Maybe it also makes sense to talk of default birds.
Cornish Chough - definitely not a default bird!
When humans are thinking about difficult and complex issues, we tend to compartmentalise as a way to simplify things. And so it is with nature and technology: “Oh, that pretty mountain range over there in front of the lake – that’s nature”. “That thing with its bleeping black screen and binary code – that’s technology”. Birds? Obviously they’re nature. But as I think the examples we’ve just been looking at show, things are not so straightforward. Nature holds a mirror up to the impacts of technological development, and it is probably only with the help of nature that we can clearly see what impacts we are having on ourselves through technology. For all the problems with Heidegger's thought, he does make a good point when he talks of technology as a revealing or uncovering – technology exploits potentials that are already given and physically possible in nature. To observe the birds is therefore to check in with how we are doing. Although much of the effect of technology has been to destroy birds and enslave humans, it’s important to note that there are glimmers of hope too – the conservation efforts that have brought red kites back from the brink of extinction is a case in point. That I can now see red kites hunting every day from my house in suburban Leeds would have been unthinkable not so many years ago. The return of Cornish Choughs to the Cornish coast is another example. They show that our knowledge and technologies can improve things, if deployed outside the instrumental logic of private profit.
We tend to associate birds with freedom, but at the risk of going a bit Team America, their freedom comes at a heavy cost. Their lives are, almost without exception, extraordinarily difficult. I have learned about birds that migrate thousands of miles, and some of their stories are particularly moving. Each year, eighty percent of long-tailed tits will lose their eggs and / or fledglings to predation and other causes. Most of these parents, however, will simply move on to a neighbouring nest and help to protect it, bringing food, supplies and their muscle to the job. Do they feel something like sadness at the loss? Then there are the tiny goldcrests and firecrests. It’s hard not to be inspired by the lengths they go to survive a hostile world: In particularly cold nights, many of these birds will huddle together to conserve heat, and will still lose 20% of their body fat overnight. Whether they’ll manage to forage enough food the next day to keep this up again is always an open question. Whichever bird you look at, there’s always something pointing to how we might live better lives ourselves.
In many ways, my concerns with the project of painting a bird a day were more prosaic than considering any deeper meaning to the birds. To be honest, I just wanted to get better at using watercolours. I'd become fond of birds over the last year, and they seemed like a manageable subject matter to tackle every day as a way to become a better painter. But, as with birds and technology, it would be a mistake to try and draw a line between the medium and the message. One of the things I love about watercolour is its ability to produce ethereal and atmospheric effects. Some of my favourite watercolour painters, like Turner and Ruskin, were masters of making phenomena appear almost as if they were not quite there. I doubt if there is a better way to capture the essence of birds as they appear to us. We see them only fleetingly, rarely getting so close that we can interact, but our fates are bound tightly together. And, as the paint blends, almost imperceptibly, into nothingness, so too do the birds threaten to disappear forever.